The problem, Rivera argued, is circumstantial. Wentz is still adjusting to a new scheme with new terminology and new progressions, as well as a fast group of receivers who resemble “a 4×100 track team.” Give him enough reps, Rivera said, and the offense will be good.
For now, though, even die-hard fans seem cautious. During introductions for the stadium practice, Wentz ran down the home-team tunnel for the first time and heard loud cheers — louder than for most anyone save defensive end Chase Young and receiver Terry McLaurin. But there was also a trepidation, a hesitancy bred by Wentz’s past two years and Washington’s past two decades, and over the next 90 minutes, Wentz did little but confirm the optimism and concern of those in attendance.
“Feels good, could definitely get better,” Wentz said of the offense. “But it’s still early. We’re only two weeks into camp, and [timing and rhythm] are the things that particularly we’re working on. … Far from perfect, but it’s fun developing chemistry with those guys.”
Early on Saturday, Wentz seemed set up to thrive. He had his starting offensive line — Wes Schweitzer was in at right guard for Trai Turner (quad) — and a full complement of skill players minus receiver Dyami Brown. But he struggled as he had Friday, airmailing several throws and skipping a few others in the dirt. He looked particularly uncomfortable under pressure, which advanced statistics suggest is a part of his game that has worsened considerably over the years.
But then Wentz threw a laser between three defenders to receiver Jahan Dotson. It was a tight window throw with timing that few Washington quarterbacks post-Kirk Cousins could have made — and it seemed to get him in a bit of a rhythm. He hit a tunnel screen and a quick out before stepping into a long bomb to depth receiver Marken Michel, who came down with it in the end zone.
In one of the ensuing drives, as Wentz seesawed, Rivera saw a perfect example for his argument. On one play, receiver Curtis Samuel ran a short route across the middle and Wentz threw too high and too hard for him to handle. Right there, Rivera said, Wentz was getting used to the way Samuel runs those short routes and his speed (Samuel has clocked a 4.31-second 40-yard dash).
Rivera also blamed unfamiliarity for Wentz and McLaurin’s inconsistent connection. McLaurin said it’s taking a little longer to adjust because he missed all of offseason workouts while holding out for a new contract. He’s learning how Wentz wants routes run, such as whether a receiver should run the route high or low if a defender plays inside leverage.
“We are doing a good job of really working through those things … even when we miss some of the deep balls,” McLaurin said. “It’s still good to get those reps to see it run against our defense and get a feel of what it is supposed to look like.”
Finally, on third down during the last period of practice, they connected. Near the goal line, Wentz stepped back and lofted a quick, back-shoulder fade to McLaurin, who turned at just the right time to snare it over the head of corner Danny Johnson. It was the first time Wentz and McLaurin had run the fade in camp, McLaurin said, and they dapped excitedly multiple times walking back to the sideline. McLaurin loved the ball placement and timing and later likened the play to “a game rep.”
Later, a reporter asked Wentz if he might play more than a series or two next Saturday in the team’s first preseason game against the Carolina Panthers in hopes of smoothing out wrinkles.
“That’s something I always leave to the coaches,” he said. “There are some new pieces, there are some new things, so I know we want to get out there [and] we’ll trust them to make the call in terms of how much.”
Maybe Rivera is right. Maybe Wentz, two years on from a traumatic end in Philadelphia, can recapture the magic he once had. Or maybe Rivera is wrong, and Wentz is the player who often struggled the past two years, and the examples the coach cites are just confirmation bias. Or maybe the truth, like Wentz’s play so far, will bear out somewhere in the muddy middle.